Shameless Is Making Its Annual Move from Comedy to Drama... Are You On Board?

By Patrick Sullivan

Mar 01, 2013

In each of its three seasons, the U.S. version of Shameless has drawn a line in the plot where it transitions quickly from TV's most wildly inappropriate comedy to an award-worthy drama. The humor is always there, but the harsh realism of the Gallaghers' poverty eventually raises the dramatic stakes much higher we're used to from such an overall funny show. With last Sunday's episode, "Cascading Failures," Shameless took its most confident step toward full-on drama by diving head first into the Gallagher family's deepest, darkest places.

Shameless has always dropped references to screwed-up events that took place before we joined the family in Season 1. Often these were played for humor—Frank's fond memories of a particular drug binge or a reunion with Monica that produced another child. But Fiona's memories were of the dark times when she had to fend for herself and her siblings in the absence of a parent, sometimes while being pulled in and out of government care. Now that we've seen how truly ill-equipped for real life the Gallagher clan can be at their current ages, it's almost impossible to believe they were ever able to survive on their own.

Slowly but surely, the wandering plot of Shameless's third season has been building toward playing its disastrous wild card: a return to life in the system for the Gallagher children. In Season 1, their poverty was not insurmountable. The streetwise Gallaghers had perfected a few scams to pay the bills and, more importantly, avoid the government's wrath. Character-driven plotlines have made a weekly kitty fund crisis unnecessary since then, but the threat of financial ruin has been ever-present for the Gallaghers as a result of Frank's continued welfare fraud. 

Season 2 pushed hardship a little further as Frank's destructive nature all but bankrupted his family. But we also witnessed a fate far worse than financial ruin as Frank's corruption of his wife (again) pushed his family toward emotional ruin as well. In Season 3, we've been treated to the rejection of Frank by each of his children in the name of self-preservation, with Debbie in particular sealing the deal on his ouster from the house. Pushed against the wall, Frank did what we assumed was the unthinkable, and called in his own flesh and blood to Child Services.

After an episode that scattered the kids across Chicago, showcasing their individual talents for survival in the process, the payoff was a gut punch courtesy of Emmy Rossum's wide eyes. The look on Fiona's face as she listened to Frank's anonymous call to was, for me, the show's most powerful moment to date. It greatly opens up the possibilities for the second half of Season 3, with Fiona again fighting to save the family while facing Frank, the government, and a suddenly on-the-fence-about-everything Jimmy as hurdles (and plenty of new ones to come).

If you told me this was Shameless's final season, I'd be 100 percent on-board with this arc as the final test for the Gallaghers. But now that the show has upped the ante, how can it possibly top itself in Season 4 (and likely future seasons thereafter)?

I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments. What do you think is in store for the rest of Season 3? Are you all-in on Shameless's yearly dramatic turn?


– A similar tonal shift would be completely jarring if applied to any other comedy today (with the exception of Louie). Parks and Recreation can move nimbly between comedy and sweetness itself, but while Pawnee can be a messed-up place at times, Leslie Knope's ability to keep the city on track is considerably less fraught with actual danger than Fiona's upcoming battles.

 All this goes to show, of course, that Shameless has been badly mis-categorized comedy during award season, as Emmy Rossum and crew can certainly go punch-for-punch with the best dramatic performances on TV.

 After carrying much of the dramatic weight in Season 2, Lip's been largely carefree this season. Between laser-wielding-battlebot competitions and his mission to expose a teacher who served time for molesting a student, he's had some odd impulses. But clearly we'll see some real Mandy drama ahead. Any bets on how it plays out?

– Kev and Veronica have been particularly great this season as their struggle to create a family was very much the storyline we've been waiting for. Across the street, Jody and Sheila have been more of a miss for me as they navigate caring for Karen's baby and balancing their individual sexual needs.

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  • Savvytvfan91 Jun 16, 2013

    Im loving this show how it can make me laugh, cry and cringe. Its harsh, its raw, its insane and its real. I like the funny, silly parts of the show but I love the drama, they do it so well.

  • Braaten26 Apr 19, 2013

    this was the saddest episode ever! i'm a huge Ian/Mickey fan and that was a real disaster...

  • angeleys151 Mar 02, 2013

    I like that it hits both the funny and the dark side of life in that kind of situation. If it was all comedy it wouldn't seem real and if it was all drama I couldn't take this show. By mixing the good with the bad in their life it makes it more real.

    The look on Fiona's face said exactly what kind of a parasite Frank is: he sent his own kids into the system and then claimed "they can't take MY kids away". On top of which this escapade cost Fiona a steady job that allows her to be there for the kids. Now the legal fees are going to wipe out the squirrel fund, and at the end of it all, what have they gained? Frank can do it all over again in a years time because they can't get him out of their lives.

    P.S. I was excited when I thought there would be weekly reviews and bummed when I realized it was just for the premier.

  • patsully Mar 02, 2013

    Agreed on the Frank frustration... he's really the villain in this show.

    Good to know you miss the weekly reviews - I'll make sure to write at least another piece towards the end of the season! Thanks for reading.

  • sleepy-sonic Mar 02, 2013

    Shameless is best when it's dramatic IMO

  • zachwiedeman Mar 02, 2013

    In Stray Thoughts, you say Shameless is categorized as a comedy during award season. But Joan Cusack was nominated for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series in the Primetime Emmy Awards. The Satellite Awards, Casting Society of America Awards, and GLAAD Media Awards also classify it as a drama series. The Prism Awards seem to be the only ones that categorized it as a comedy when they nominated William H. Macy (who won) and Emmy Rossum in 2012 for Performances in a Comedy Series.

  • patsully Mar 02, 2013

    You're correct - and Showtime actually submitted the show for Emmy consideration as a drama in the past. But I think the fact that it could really be submitted either way is the only thing that prevents it from winning awards.

  • pedrohmanfro Mar 02, 2013

    may *whatever god you believe in (or the one you don't believe)* bless Showtime for Californication, House of Lies and Shameless. All at the same day

  • pedrohmanfro Mar 02, 2013

    or maybe the truck of money they get out of it is blessing enough

  • emmairis Mar 02, 2013

    A season 4 better than season 3? IN SHAMELESS WE TRUST!

  • emmiegirl Mar 02, 2013

    Since the rejection of the idealistic portrayals of the American family such as the Nelsons of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and the Cleavers of Leave It to Beaver, television has provided us with visions of the uber-dysfunctional family unit, from the Bunkers of All in the Family, the Harpers of Mama's Family, the Bundys of Married with Children, the Connors of Roseanne and now the Gallaghers, dramedies which at once entertain and make (most of) us feel a bit better about our own circumstances.

    Most of those shows never delved too deeply into the drama or realism of various issues they raised, preferring to stay in the safer comedic territory, so it is terribly impressive to see such a relatively young cast of actors execute the caliber of material the writers deliver on Shameless. Amidst popular media overrun with images of wealth, privilege and excess, the social and emotional issues Shameless addresses with realism, humor and poignancy are too often closer to reality for too many American families than billionaire playboys, desperate housewives or white collar high flyers. Emmy Rossum is phenomenal, portraying with grace and maturity in every scene Fiona's ever-present underlying anxiety at the tenuous reality she and her family exist in, her desires and hopes for more, and her heartbreak over a world full of people that all let her down eventually.

    All at once hilarious and heartbreaking, each season has grown progressively more serious with regard to the realities faced by the Gallaghers and as humorous as many of their foibles are, there are too many serious issues currently in play or peripherally introduced that have not been satisfactorily addressed for the writers to run out of steam in the near-term. I do not think Frank's betrayal and Fiona's resultant suit for custodial rights is anywhere close to the heights of their story because there is more to the issues they face than merely keeping the children together. Without being heavy-handed in respect of the matter, Shameless has taken on the issues of poverty and social mobility in the US, and in the current environment many of us deeply want to see how the Gallaghers deal with their restrictive economic reality, if only for the brief escape from dealing with our own. Deep down we very much want to see Fiona succeed, because these are the echos of what each of us needs and wants.

    If I have one criticism of the writing, it is that the vast majority of material addressing sex in any regard is handled with the maturity of a men's room full of high school freshman, which is disappointing because they handle alcohol, drugs and drug use with far more aplomb and dexterity, an arguably more taboo issue.

  • patsully Mar 02, 2013

    This is an awesome writeup - and I agree on the handling of sexual situations on the show. It's worth a deeper analysis for sure.

  • zachwiedeman Mar 03, 2013

    If you enjoyed that, you should dry chomping through this little guy...

    by Jennifer M. Fogel

  • emmiegirl Mar 04, 2013

    I will certainly give it a look. I'm honored that something I jotted off on my mobile in a coffee shop is a springboard to a reference of academic publishing and criticism. And people say I think too much...

  • zachwiedeman Mar 04, 2013

    Wow, nice. Well, what you wrote was very interesting and thoughtful.

  • Taccado Mar 01, 2013

    This show always manages to come up with new crazy plot lines. Every time I think they have pushed the limits far enough, they come up with something more insane, yet hilarious. Molly, the little girl with a penis, and Kevin having sex with his mother-in-law while Veronica is watching have been a few of the jaw dropping moments this season.

  • patsully Mar 02, 2013

    The Molly plot is one that I've hoped would go away soon since it doesn't have much of a direct effect on the main characters. But it is always fun to see how the Gallagher family reacts to situations odder than their own.

  • KnoX Mar 03, 2013

    but it did go away, didn't it? her/his dead mother dug herself up, came back to life and took molly back, didn't she?

  • LucaMaltaglia Mar 01, 2013

    The Ian-Mickey story also added to the dramatic feeling of the episode... their final scene was a punch in the stomach.

  • patsully Mar 02, 2013

    Oh man, absolutely. Romantic relationships are not allowed to be happy-go-lucky for long on this show.

  • LucaMaltaglia Mar 02, 2013

    I found especially good to see how the two of them behave like a "normal" couple for the first time ever, and then the disaster!

    It must be said that the actor that plays Mickey made a great job this time, the look that gives to Ian just before going at it with the Russian is priceless.

  • JohnCouto Mar 02, 2013

    I have not watched it yet but damn I hope Ian breaks things off with Mickey. He skeeves me out!

  • patsully Mar 02, 2013

    So are you Team Jimmy's Dad?

  • JohnCouto Mar 24, 2013

    Finally saw the episode and I started rooting for them two a bit since Mickey stopped being less of a dick lol

  • JohnCouto Mar 04, 2013

    Lol anyone but Mickey. Not so much Jimmy's dad neither lol

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